Dr Anthony Rodriguez: Providence College must do better for students of color

Dr Anthony Rodriguez
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I am a recipient of the 2011 Golden Apple Excellence in Teaching Award in the State of New Mexico. A talented high school football player is more likely to be drafted in the NFL, than a talented, hardworking teacher is of winning this esteemed award. New Mexico is a dynamic state that contends daily with many challenges, ranking first in overall child poverty. In this state, I taught higher-level mathematics to students who are traditionally excluded and ignored. Many of my former students are college graduates. I worked, they worked and because of our commitment to greater things they demonstrated their unique abilities and talents. Similarly, when professors view people of color as inherently capable (not a token or stereotype), these students will access a rigorous and supportive curriculum, fully realizing their potential.

It can be that simple.

When a college cares about equity and diversity, they will hold people who discriminate accountable. They will tell those who silence and harm students to stop. Otherwise, we are knowingly sheltering those whose first instinct when teaching a person of color is to descend into deficit modes of thinking, those seeds of future discrimination. These seeds have been able to bear fruit in my department, and I now know, without question, why there are so few people of color teaching in the classrooms of Rhode Island. It starts with the arbitrary system of privilege within their undergraduate teacher training program and who gets this privilege and who does not.

My department, over many years, in a controlled, focused and deficit-oriented manner, removed people of color from the Elementary and Special Education program. They have done so by creating arbitrary and biased assessments that have no grounding in empirical research. These assessments, policies, and practices have consistently, over time, disproportionately harmed Black and Latinx students. Under the guise that RIDE (Rhode Island Department of Education) required these barriers for licensure, the department had duped and misled our students.

What the college has done in response is to coddle, assign innocence, and provide private tutoring to fully tenured faculty while attempting to cover the issue up with a college-wide branding campaign. Administrations choice to ignore the harm that the department has caused is a short-term patch that is already unraveling and revealing underlying problems. The administration is quick to assign good intentions and innocence to our department. The administration does not grant the same benefit of the doubt to the students whose careers they ruined. Our administration has to stop allowing faculty to learn on the backs of people of color.

Providence College can enact systemic change to benefit all students at the college; yet our administration and department are more interested in exterior appearances than in high leverage, evidence-based practices for inclusion, diversity, and support of those marginalized.

The Coalition on Racism has provided universal supports for anyone struggling to breathe in this repressive environment. We are here because we want to build a better place for those hired and admitted to Providence College. Holding people accountable is the first step in such a community as there can be no more coverups. We work in the shadow cast by heroes such as Charles Hamilton Houston, who laid the groundwork for Brown v Board in his exposure of separate but unequal schools. We are looking to enact real change at Providence College that exposes the branding and cultural competency training for what it is – a smokescreen and choice to take the easy path. We care about our college, we care about our students and because of this, we cannot continue to accept the false promises that come with gradualism.

I noticed these problems before my first semester working in the department. When I voiced concerns, they were brushed aside as coincidental. Later, when pressed further, I was told that other people in the department had acted inappropriately for decades, but it is not them. When I continued to ask questions, I was roundly silenced by the dept and the administration – this act of silencing students has been a theme for a long time.

I first made the college formally aware of their practices in the fall of 2014, when I advocated how we should stop encouraging the teaching of ”Ducktails” as a behavior management strategy in our classes. It is where schools force kids to walk down the hallway with their hand behind their backs like those arrested. This practice is deficit oriented, harmful and a component of the school to prison pipeline. I later wrote about this in Education Week, entitled “Ducktails discipline, disrespect writ large.” I have since, with multiple formal letters, meetings, and resultant investigations (all of which have not been released to the public) made the college aware of what needs to be changed. I hoped that through real discussions on data and research, we would enact the apparent changes and become more aligned with evidence-based practices of the 21st century.

I was wrong.

In the past seven years, beginning formally on March 21, 2013, I have been subjected to open and unyielding harassment and retaliation by members of my department and beyond, of which the university has done nothing to stop. The goal was to silence my voice and bury the truth. I have paid the price for my advocacy. For six years, my department attempted to discredit my work and tarnish my reputation in a systematic paper trail of lies and openly racist statements that they hoped would lead to my firing. They voted to deny my tenure and hoped that this false and misleading testimony would influence the college-wide committee on rank and tenure known as CART. Fortunately, this committee judged me on my work and not on my advocacy, and I stand here before you as tenured faculty. Recently I had to move my office to another building to place myself outside of harm’s way.

My department has been in receivership for over two years and I have recently been made aware that the administration has decided to empower the same people, structures, and systems that caused harm to our students of color the most while rebranding it as new and improved. These efforts are meant to give an all-clear sign to the community while we continue to do what we have always done.

We do not have the time nor the patience to have administrators and members of the Elementary and Special Education Department learn at the expense and on the backs of our students of color. At this point, it is much easier to own the problem and apologize to those harmed than it is to continue to fool ourselves that branding and private tutoring is ever the answer. We should be humble and admit what we do not know. The need to improve, do good work, and stay vigilant should be more important than the need to keep up appearances, protect reputations, and save face. This problem is our stumbling stone at Providence College. Transparency and oversight of my department will lead to significant change and allow for the profound talents of our students to emerge and bring us closer to God. It is where innocence is lost, profound truths revealed, and essential work begun.


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About Dr Anthony Rodriguez 1 Article
Dr Anthony Rodriguez is a tenure faculty member at Providence College's Elementary and Special Education Department.